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Getting started as a literary translator


This isn't a conventional career with a standard 'career path', so there's no foolproof recipe for progress.  Essentially you need publishers to get to know you – what you translate, your tastes and your style.  You need them to know that you're very good at what you do and absolutely professional - responsible, reliable, and easy to deal with. You also of course need them to have an appropriate piece of work for you.  

This may sound obvious, but it's not easy to achieve when one is starting from scratch. So, here are a few things you might do to increase your chances: 

    • Editors often need people with other languages to write reader's reports for them on books that have been submitted to them for consideration by foreign publishers or agents. They need people who can read the book/manuscript in question and assess its quality and its suitability for translation and publication in English. You want to be one of these people. This is how editors get to know you, and trust your judgment, and develop a sense of your taste. Write to likely publishers and offer your services. Most probably they won't commission work from you instantly, but just put you on file – but one day when they get a red-hot new novel sent to them by an agent in Finland / Iran / Thailand that needs a quick expert appraisal they'll remember your particular expertise and call on you. 

    • You should also be reading as widely as you can in the language from which you translate, not just because it makes you a better reader (and so a better translator) but because it also makes you a better scout. Your reader's reports will benefit from knowing a book's literary and cultural context. And you should always be keeping an eye out for a writer who hasn't been translated and you think should be. If you find someone you really want to champion, then you can go back to hammering on the publishers' doors until someone notices and allows you to try and persuade them. 

    • If you do have a pet writer you're trying to sell to a publisher, do a sample translation, and make it good. It has to be good enough that the publisher wants to buy the writer on the strength of it – and wants to keep you as the translator. What you're trying to persuade them to buy is a piece of writing in English. They will read the first chapter you send them in English, and if it's good they'll be desperate to read chapter two, in English, ideally in your rendering. It's a lot to ask a publisher to get deeply excited about a book they can't read, and they'll also find it hard to get excited about it if the translation they're reading is second-rate, still less be convinced that you're the translator for the job. The sample is selling the original writer, and you as a translator, ideally as an irresistible combination. 

    • Though many people find the experience excruciating, networking helps. Go to events and introduce yourself to publishers (you never know, they might just that day be looking for someone to do a sample translation from Italian, and if they don't know you they don't know you…) – write to them with a CV and an offer to do some reports. Introduce yourself to other translators, too, especially those who work in the same languages as you do – you'll find most translators are very generous with their time and advice, leads and contacts. 

    • Look into opportunities that are specific to your language – several languages (especially the major European languages) have programmes in place to promote those literatures into English, often run by a cultural body attached to the relevant Embassy; they, too, often need people to read books for a report, to produce sample translations to sell to publishers, and so on. They are sometimes also the body that provides the funding that allows these books to be translated at all.

All these things help. You also need to be lucky, persistent and thick-skinned. There are a lot of people who want to be translators and right now in the Anglophone publishing world there is not a vast amount of demand from publishers, so it's competitive. But the fact that there are literary translators out there doing it at all under such circumstances tells you it can be worth the struggle. And it's getting better. 





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